Pakistan and India routinely deny visas to people of either countries - both prominent and otherwise - and often it doesn’t make news. Indians who visit the Pakistan embassy in Delhi know how hard it’s to get hold of a visa and how hard it’s to deal with the immigration and police officials once you reach Pakistan.
Pakistanis, including those raised in the West, too have similar stories with some even vowing never to return again - it’s about reciprocity and that’s exactly how countries behave, whether they are friendly or not. India and Pakistan are not friends.
So we regularly deny visas to hordes of cross-border pilgrims and a lot of popular Pakistani artistes on both security and procedural grounds, and Pakistan too does the same from time-to-time. There’s no question of who started it first because it has been going on for ever. And that’s how foreign affairs work.
Some times, these security and procedural concerns are real, and some times political. Remember, when America introduced finger printing of overseas visitors, Brazil retaliated instantly by asking American tourists on Brazilian ports to queue up for a reciprocal procedure - they didn’t even have an electronic finger-printing machine and had to do with a finger-pad and paper.
So, what’s the big deal Anupam Kher?
You are one of the many Indians who happened to be on Pakistan’s radar now for reciprocal action. And just because you think you have some endowment owing to your proximity to the BJP, you feel outraged. Of course, they are making a point by singling you out. And that’s exactly how it works.
This is not the first time; and this will not be the last time either. And, it’s also not because you are with the BJP. In the past, Bollywood’s favourite poet Javed Akhtar was singled out from a group that was to visit Pakistan to raise money for 2005-earthquake victims during the Congress-led UPA rule.
He had no sympathy for saffron politics and was a strong advocate for religious tolerance - traits that Pakistan could have exploited in their favour. On another occasion, actor Feroz Khan was thrown out of the country because of his allegedly drunken anti-Pakistan tirades on Pakistan-TV.
India too had denied visas to a lot of prominent Pakistanis - mostly good looking actors and talented entertainers who had a following in India - Imran Abbas, who acted with Bipasha Basu; Humaima Malick, Emran Hashmi’s pair in one of his movies; Mahira Khan, Shah Rukh Khan’s reported pair in Raees; and may others including singers Arif Lohar, Javed Bashir, Imran Aziz Mian and Sahir Ali Bagga.
And most recently, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan was deported from Hyderabad airport, immediately on arrival, on technical grounds - apparently Pakistanis can enter India only through the ports in the four metros. Even more bizarre bar on entry was on Ghazal king Ghulam Ali, on whom the government had no problem, but its alliance partners had. So a harrowed and amused Ali could sing only in West Bengal and Kerala, but not anywhere else.
Pakistanis too do the same thing. They deny visas to ordinary citizens and more prominent ones at will, and they do harass and restrict movement once Indians land on their soil. For instance, if you have a visa only for Islamabad, you will be chaperoned to a detention area for your connecting flight if you transit through Lahore.
So, why is Anupam Kher complaining?
Because he wants to make a bigger national hero out of himself - a man hounded by Pakistan because he is against Muslim terror in Kashmir, because he is a displaced Kashmiri Pandit and because he is a strong nationalist. And during the present times of hyper-jingoism, a lot of people will stand by him and bash others with alternative-opinions, including those who bat for track-two diplomacy and cricketing ties, and those who criticise human excesses in Kashmir.
One cannot blame Kher's perpetual peeve of forceful displacement that many Kashmiri Pandits all over the world feel, but using it for political aggrandisement is not cool. When Javed Akhtar was singled out, he didn't care; neither did Feroz Khan.
Every time a BJP-led government comes to power, it’s windfall time for people such as Anupam Kher because there aren’t too many A-listers in Bollywood who show open allegiance to partisan political ideologies. Most of the art-house film-makers are habitually Left and secular and hence openly oppose the BJP and its interventions in art, while the others keep a safe distance. It’s only people such as Kher, Gajendra Chauhan, Pahlaj Nihalani and Hema Malini who stick their neck out.
Obviously they do get rewarded. In the recent uproar over intolerance, while almost all the elites of the entertainment industry and the art-house crowd covertly and overtly criticised the Modi government, his party and proxies for their alleged intolerance, it was Kher who managed to parade a group in support, although comprising comparatively insignificant names. Coincidentally, he got a Padma Bhushan. Last time, more than ten years ago, his reward came in the form of a Padma Sri. The Padma Bhushan probably took longer because of the UPA- interregnum.
There’s no denying the fact that the actor is a household name for his prodigious volume of work in Bollywood, and some unforgettable performances; but it’s his pro-BJP politics that gets him the bigger stage and even bigger political profile. The Pakistan visa denial is just another opportunity to play up this political card and Hindu-nationalism.
Let him do that because he benefits from it, but the rest of the county should take it easy. There’s nothing new. India has detailed and even deported people of other nationalities for silly reasons. Denial of visas, selective scrutiny and bad behaviour at immigration counters because of the colour of your skin, language and passport, and restriction on your movements are the reality of the world. And India-Pakistan friendship is just a myth that we will continue to play for another 1000 years.